David Novak—Idolatry and injustice: A Jewish appreciation of Reinhold Niebuhr

Posted by Kendall Harmon

It seems to me that Niebuhr's appeal to many nonreligious people was because he treated idolatry as the root of the injustice they felt was so wrong and had to be opposed. Niebuhr did not require them to make a theological commitment in order to be more coherently opposed to injustice. He did not require them to first affirm "the God of Justice" (Isaiah 30:18) in order to then appreciate how injustice is not only an assault on humans, but it is an assault on truth itself.

What Niebuhr did try to persuade them was that their opposition to injustice would be more coherent if they understood that the injustice they opposed is not just the result of human error at the epistemological level, but that it is the result of human deceit at the ontological level - substituting a false god for the true God, even if they could now only affirm the possibility that there is such a God. And to affirm what is clearly a desirable possibility is the essence of hope. Hence Niebuhr gave their moral instinct a deeper and more hopeful intentionality.

So when Stanley Hauerwas criticizes Niebuhr for promulgating "an ethic for everyone," I think Niebuhr would have taken that criticism as a compliment, for an ethic for everyone is precisely what ethics must be in order to have a voice in an idolatrous world. Clearly, Niebuhr would have liked for his nonreligious hearers to move into a position of faith in the God of the Bible, but he did not present that move as some sort of logical necessity. He knew full well that no one can be argued into faith, yet they can be argued into opposition against idolatrous injustice.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeChurch History* Culture-WatchPhilosophyReligion & Culture* Religion News & CommentaryOther FaithsJudaism* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

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